Environment

Feds acknowledge radiation, chemicals likely killed 396 in Idaho

Freddy Rodriguez, left, and Brian Simmons, process nuclear operators at the INL, use master-slave manipulators to work with radioactive material on the other side of the glass.
Freddy Rodriguez, left, and Brian Simmons, process nuclear operators at the INL, use master-slave manipulators to work with radioactive material on the other side of the glass. McClatchy

Jim Delmore came to the lab he ran at the Idaho National Laboratory on Nov. 13, 1972, to find it roped off from entry because of a plutonium contamination.

A chemist had brought a sample of plutonium nitrate into the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant the day before that was 10,000 times larger than needed, Delmore said, and the plutonium nitrate spread throughout the lab. Internal tests showed the dose to the lungs of the 13 lab staff was small. But it also showed that several of the workers had been previously contaminated and had not been adequately monitored.

“They were very sloppy then,” said Delmore, now 78.

Delmore has worked at INL since 1966 and is among the top experts in the nation on mass spectrometry, an analytical chemistry technique. He’s officially retired but continues to work at the INL as a senior fellow. He has suffered through several bouts of five different cancers, he said, all now in remission. Based on what he knew from the 1972 incident, he made a claim in 2013 under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

He received $150,000 in compensation. INL workers who’ve shown their work likely contributed to or caused their illness got part of $53 million in health care costs paid under the program.

Another $188 million was paid to the survivors of 471 former INL workers who’ve died — that’s about 37 percent of the families that filed claims, according to Department of Labor records obtained and analyzed by McClatchy in our series: Irradiated.

The federal government acknowledged for the first time this year that work at the Idaho site likely caused or contributed to the deaths of 396 workers.

The INL math can be confusing and unclear. While the government has compensated the families of nearly 480 INL workers who died, it says that only 396 workers proved to the government’s satisfaction that exposure at INL was 50 percent or more responsible for their deaths. Nationwide, 15,809 of the nuclear worker deaths nationwide fit that test.

Proving eligibility at all has been hard for former INL employees, who have seen about two of every three claims denied. When they have a disease that qualifies, they also have to prove they had been exposed to high levels of radiation or hazards.

But because Delmore brought the 1972 incident and the lack of internal monitoring to the attention of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in his 2013 claim, many former workers may be eligible for compensation without having to prove anything except that they have a qualifying disease.

“I think I’ve opened the door for others,” Delmore said.

COMPLICATED PROCESS

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 passed with bipartisan support to make up for years of exposures and contamination by radioactive materials and chemicals during the Cold War. The act requires that the federal government give lump-sum payments of $150,000 to sick nuclear workers or their surviving spouses and children, pay medical bills and make up for lost wages.

But first, claimants must prove that their work at Department of Energy facilities was responsible for their illness.

Claims usually are decided by a long technical process — averaging nearly three years — that estimates how likely it is that an illness was caused by work at INL. Many claimants die awaiting Department of Labor payments.

Eighteen sites, including larger labs such as Oak Ridge, Hanford and Savannah River, are considered “special exposure cohorts,” whose retirees are automatically granted compensation if they have one of 22 types of cancer and worked at the facility within a set time frame. Currently, the INL has none of the special cohorts, which means the burden of proof is on claimants.

But the discovery by NIOSH that internal monitoring did not take place at INL has it proposing adding a cohort for Chem Plant workers between 1963 and 1974, because the agency can’t do accurate dose reconstructions. The same circumstances may affect other parts of INL.

‘NO ONE WAS ON HIS SIDE’

That won’t help Donna Jean Bailey, of Idaho Falls. Her husband, Kenneth Bailey, died in 2011 from pancreatic cancer he believed was caused from exposure to radiation and heavy metals during his 33 years of working as an instrument technician at INL.

“They refused him twice,” Bailey said. “He fought hard before he died but it seemed like no one was on his side.”

Like many INL workers, Bailey moved around, working in many INL locations, said his son, Steve Bailey. He worked at the Chem Plant and in some of the reactor sites, and told Donna of a specific incident when he was lowered into a reactor vessel to check its instrumentation.

“Most of this work was done in a partial radiation suit that covered only part of his body,” Steve Bailey said. “When his levels went too high, they would send him home for a day, reset his monitor, and have him come back to resume work the next day.”

But officials said Bailey did not have a complete and accurate medical and factual history strong enough to show a 50 percent probability that his cancer was caused from his job.

A National Institute work group, which has held several meetings in Idaho, is considering whether to provide compensation for sick and dead workers who worked at the Idaho Chem Plant from 1963 to 1974 without having to prove a connection. No timetable for a decision has been set.

My dad’s dying wish was don’t let them get away with this and don’t ever work out there,” Steve Bailey said.

BURDEN OF PROOF

Tami Thatcher, an engineer who used to conduct risk assessments at the Advanced Test Reactor at INL, now works for the Environmental Defense Institute, an Idaho group that has long fought to make INL radiation releases more transparent. She argues that all of INL should be a separate cohort where workers don’t have the burden to prove their illness was caused by their job.

“There are such a variety of hazards anyone working out there would have faced,” she said.

Drinking water, for instance. Water was contaminated with radioactive tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, which was pumped directly into the groundwater. Levels were as high as five times the maximum federal acceptable contamination level in the 1960s; levels violated the standard when the Environmental Protection Agency and the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality required monitoring in 1987, Thatcher said.

An open-air reactor test in 1965 that had not been made public also likely caused high doses for workers across the site, she said.

Stephanie Stevens, a spokeswoman for the National Institute, said it “ has not yet reached a conclusion about whether a class should be recommended for certain other areas of INL.”

Rocky Barker has covered INL and Idaho energy since the 1980s. 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker Statesman reporter Audrey Dutton contributed.

Read “Irradiated”

Link to the database and see the full multimedia report at IdahoStatesman.com.

TODAY Winning the Cold War and developing nuclear power likely caused or contributed to the deaths of at least 396 former INL workers, the government says, and more than 15,000 nuclear workers nationwide.

MONDAY Lack of records makes it hard to prove nuclear workers’ illnesses are caused by their job.

TUESDAY Federal government pares health care benefits and retirement for workers as it seeks to build a new generation of nuclear weapons.

WEDNESDAY Nuclear work is safer than in the Cold War era, but workers like Idahoan Ralph Stanton still face threat of illness.

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